Bloggers who focus on military matters — known online as "milbloggers" — have been up in arms over new Army regulations about blogs published by active duty troops.
Some fear the new rules could end up silencing first-person web journals published from combat zones.
The uproar circles around an Army regulation issued April 19 which updates earlier language about operational security (or "OPSEC") and blogs.
Paragraph 2-1g says Army personnel must "consult with their immediate supervisor and their OPSEC Officer for an OPSEC review prior to publishing or posting information in a public forum."
The regulation applies to e-mail, blogs, message board, and other forms of digital communication.
The new orders were a hot topic over the past weekend, when milbloggers gathered in Arlington, Va., for the second annual Milblog Conference.
In a taped message played during the event , President Bush thanked military bloggers for their contributions; but the president's upbeat message felt to some like a contradiction with the actual regulations.
Adding to that confusion was a follow-up press release from the Army that appeared after the regulations were widely criticized online. The underlying message was that the regulations were intended as guidelines and may not be strictly enforced.
"This is very much an honor system," said Paul Boyce, a public affairs specialist with the Army. "You as a soldier have a vested interest in operational security, because you don't want to get yourself killed, or others killed."
"No one wants a chilling effect for milblogs," says Boyce, "But we also don't want to the ultimate chilling effect of death."
Wired News defense technology reporter Noah Shachtman says the Army's more recent statements could be considered a comfort, but that "those regulations are the equivalent of a military order — they have the force of law.The press release doesn't have the force of anything."
Shachtman says, "Even though these regulations apply to family, contractors, and others, these folks couldn't actually read the regulations at first, because they were only available behind a password-protected, semi-secret network firewall."
Shachtman participated in the milblogging conference this weekend, along with Matthew Currier Burden, author of The Blog of War and founder of the blog Blackfive. Burden says he and others in military blogging circles believe the ambiguity will likely cause problems.
"Because military commanders in the field are going to look up these regulations on the Army network, and they're going to find the text of the regulations," says Burden, "Not a more relaxed follow-up statement or press release."
Some milbloggers believe the new regulations are redundant, because ample operational security guidelines are already in place.
John Noonan, an active duty member of the Air Force who co-edits the blog OPFOR, also attended the milbloggers event.
He believes milblogs have never harmed the troops in the five years the war has been conducted — in fact, they've helped the American public better understand the everyday realities soldiers face.
"How many injuries have happened as a result of OPSEC violations on blogs? None," says Noonan. "Because soldiers are professionals, and they do understand what they can and cannot write."
Noonan, Burden, and others are now talking about several ways to solve what they see as the Army's milblogging dilemma. Some advocate rewriting and republishing the new Army regulations.
Others say even if that can't happen, the Army and bloggers should work together to promote the more permissive interpretation to commanders in the field, who are focused on the very real business of running a war — and may not be aware of the details of running a blog.